Two years ago I had the privilege of covering the Sundance Film Festival for RogerEbert.com. In those ten days we published a handful of pieces that I am, to this day, still proud of. But what has stayed with me are the misfires. The occasions where I was off the mark, or worse, arrogant in my evaluations. In looking through the archives, there is one dispatch that stands out. On day two of Sundance 2014, I wrote rather scathingly about Tim Sutton’s “Memphis." Here’s an excerpt:
“My optimism was quickly squashed by Sutton's sophomoric sophomore effort, a pseudo-existentialist excursion through the life of a nomadic singer struggling with artistic stagnation. Although, the only thing more stagnant than the protagonist's musical career is the film itself.”
Yikes. I went on to call the movie “aimless and amorphous” before swiftly moving onto the next film. And that’s where this story could’ve ended. Except it didn’t. Later in the festival, at the annual film critic/blogger party, a lanky, blonde-hair man accosted me. For nearly thirty minutes we debated my capsule review of “Memphis." He said the film’s director, Tim Sutton, was deeply offended by what I had written. In turn, I noted that I was deeply offended by what I had seen. The whole debate resolved itself more amicably than I can articulate in writing. By the end, Casper (who worked as a graphic designer on “Memphis”) and I came to a mutual understanding.
Looking back at that piece of writing, I am taken aback by its flippancy. And while I still stand by my take of the movie, I don’t stand by how I wrote that take.
That conversation with Casper served as a reminder that we are not writing into the void. The people we’re analyzing do sometimes read what we have to say. In fact, it’s because of this interaction that I made a concerted effort this festival to watch “Dark Night," Sutton’s latest film. Told over one day, the movie—which charts the intersection of gun violence, technology, and death—is a piece of pure poetry. Undulating to the stirring sounds of Maica Armata, Sutton’s film is all tone, emotion, and atmosphere. He seems to be habitually uninterested in constructing plots, or conventional dialogue. The film truly is, to quote the press release, a “haunting prelude to an American Massacre.” In Park City, Sutton sat down with me to discuss our past, his future, and “Dark Night."
You remember the piece.
Yeah, I remember reading it. I don’t think I read the whole review, but it was like a tweet or something. I felt it was weirdly harsh.
Well, the movie upset me.
If you don’t like the movie, I totally respect that. That was just the first thing to come out about the movie, and meanwhile, at that time, I’m forced to beg Eric Kohn to write something about it for IndieWire. But “Memphis” was a small film and it eventually got good coverage; many people liked it and many people didn’t. It’s a movie that you can dig or you can kind of lose easily. But I remember, it was my first Sundance, my second feature, and it was hard to see that first bit coming at me that felt like an unintelligent response to the film. It was not a measured response to the film.
I agree it wasn’t measured.
I kept telling myself, I’m not making films for everybody. But deep down inside, every filmmaker wants to make films for everybody. So I remember that and being like, “Oh, that’s unfair.” That said, I think “Memphis” is a movie, and I especially thought it was unfair, because “Memphis” was by design intricate, layered, everything was done absolutely perfectly.
And I reduced it to 200 words.
Well, and reduced it to a wanderer. Like a guy wanders around a city. So, for me, painstakingly putting this film together to make it seem that it was maybe like a wander, while there were so many layers underneath it. The movie, to me, gets better every time you watch it. If you’re expecting plot, the movie sucks, but if you’re not expecting plot, and you’re okay with just being a part of it and letting your mind run wild, you’ll feel so many different things. “Dark Night” is more immediate, but it grows with you. It’s not disposable. I was super sensitive, and still am sensitive, about trying to make media that’s not disposable in a time where everything is super disposable.
I think you’ve succeeded here.
And I think, in terms of “Dark Night” and the other films, there’s this immediacy and …
Well, the topicality of it, but it’s not about wandering. It’s more precise. You have the one rule of the narrative: sunrise, midnight, one day. So even if it felt like things wander here and there and that certain scenes are about “nothing," you still have this subliminal move into the future, and the future’s not good.
The future’s not good?
I think this movie shows that the future’s not good of this movie, in terms of at midnight, in the theater, we know what’s going to happen. The movie doesn’t have violence in it for a reason. So, to me, it’s not hopeful, it’s not catharsis at all by design, but it’s going to come. Every day is going to go forward. What does dawn bring? Does that bring another shooting? Does it bring some sort of a new way of living? It’s dawn. It’s the idea that everything keeps moving on no matter what. The movie could be a loop.
The film feels very intimate and present, despite all the characters. Can we even call them characters?
They are types; they are created characters. I wanted a vet; I wanted a selfie freak; I wanted a young Latina who wants something else; I wanted a troubled teenager. So, I wanted these types, and instead of writing these in and fitting them into something else, I tried to design these types and meet these people, and specify what they would be. They are themselves 100%. Eddie, the vet, those are his guns. That is his range. That is his support group. That’s all real. But the way it’s framed within the story creates him as a specific type of character that, in real life, is probably much more stable than what this character becomes.
So these people are playing heightened versions of themselves?
Or phantom versions of themselves, or legendary versions of themselves. The thing about “Memphis” is, you know the one-legged guy in Memphis?
I wrote the idea of this guy who is both sinister and angelic, and is driving Willis and is really carrying his soul, and is his transporter. And I knew I wanted him to be shooting down to Mississippi by the end, back into the earth. We found this guy who had one leg and he was like a gangster shaman, so I decided to make Willis drive him around, and their dynamic changed, but all of a sudden it became conciliary. He’s just this guy on a street corner, in real life. He’s a gangster. I mean, I love the guy, but in this movie, he’s De Niro.
Tell me how you do that. Not only how you find these people, but how you get them to trust you?
Well, you find these people through the time spent, and who’s looking. So Eleonore Hendricks, who’s my casting director, went down with her to Sarasota with Alexandra Byer, and they just hit the streets. Whether it’s just going to the beach or whether it’s hanging out at restaurants, or finding out where vets meet and workout, or going to the Magic the Gathering tournament. And they saw this cool car, this old Mercedes, and they started following him, and they pulled up next to him and they saw him and said, OH, he’s cute, and he looked over and he was Jumper. Those eyes came out, and they stopped him at the red light. So a lot of it is luck, and a lot of it being open toward finding people and melding your ideas as a storyteller with who they already are and what they look like. The mythic part of it is very specifically cinematography and patience—when you frame someone a certain way, and you let them live in front of the camera, framed elegantly but letting them be themselves. They’re not acting, but they’re in your frame and you let that last. And if you keep with that language—I’m not just talking about the long takes—but if you keep with that specific language, you create personas, not just people. It doesn’t always work, but when it does work, you get that certain quality.
Do you find in watching your films, or rather films like yours, that your mind drifts? I had this experience in watching “Dark Night” and by the end I felt like it was some sort of internal therapy.
Right, you’ve had a tremendous experience in your own way, and hopefully someone next to you has had their own version of it. When I was younger, a group of us went to this concert, like a symphony, and I was living in Prague at the time. And we were at the symphony, and it was amazing and cheap, and you could get good seats. The music was great, and this guy kept saying, “My mind kept wandering.” And I was like, “What do you think it’s there for? What do you think the music for? It’s designed to let your mind wander.” And I think that the cinema that does that responsibly, Malick, Gus van Sant, even like movies like “Beau Travail," “Ballast," “Gummo,“ all those films are literally living, breathing things. You’re creating a world more than a story. You say therapy, I mean the films that I dig I think are these that take me so deeply inside or so deeply outside my head, that I stop and I’m in a trance or mesmerized. I have this completely other experience. I live those films in my head forever, because I had deeply, deeply satisfying experiences watching them. You couldn’t even tell me the plot of “The Passenger” was. I don’t even know. You know what I mean? Godard is the same thing. When people start talking about the plot of a Godard film, I’m like, “What? I didn’t get that.” I’m just in the fragments.
You have huge eyes.
I do. They called me "Bug Eyes" when I was little.
But there’s something to them. A curiosity.
I feel very comfortable in spaces and landscapes, and my movies are most interesting to me when I boil them down to their essence, which is just figures and landscapes. How do they exist in a landscape? How do I exist in a landscape? I made the street-lamps major characters in my movies because I love just staring at them and wondering what the hell they’re thinking. You know what I mean?
Do you do that?
Well, not in Park City., because I’m too busy. Here it’s all crazy. But when I’m walking through a parking lot on the way to a big box store, counting my steps. James Holmes didn’t do that. I do that. I’m constantly wondering about a movie that’s over here. And I feel very comfortable trying to make that into something. I think, Oh, that’s a good idea? Maybe I’ll do it. If I have something that I feel works, I try and relate that. Counting your steps like that and repeating, it was perfect. He’s practicing. There’s nothing violent or scary. But it is so scary in the movie because you just realize what he’s doing halfway through, and you’re like, Oh, man. Meanwhile, it’s just a dude walking in a parking lot.
He’s not evil, he’s just troubled.
Troubled. And you know when you get into the zone when you’re doing something like this, and you’re out there on the street, but this isn’t the world. This is this weird Sundance-y world. When I’m existing in my world with a couch, or some weird place, or something else, I’m a human being, not just a person connected to a movie, and a publicist, and a sales agent, and that kind of stuff. You can relax your brain. When do you write your best work? When you have to write your best work, or when the rain is falling and everything is relaxed. I have a really interesting thing that means a lot to me. It’s about the difference between city birds and country birds. Do you know the difference between city birds and country birds?
Do you wanna know?
City birds know four songs. Because they need to know the very basic songs. Country birds know hundreds of songs, because their brains are relaxed, and they have space.
And you’re a country bird.
No, I’m saying that your brain space has to make sense, it has to be relaxed.
So then why do so many artists live in big cities?
I don’t know.
Where do you live?
I live in Brooklyn. I’m talking about mental space more than physical space. Why do great artists always end up in the country? Jackson Pollock went out to the Hamptons. Sol LeWitt lived in Connecticut. Like all these guys made it in New York because they needed that combustion to get started, and then once they got started, they got the fuck out.
Are you happy with your life?
I’m extremely happy. But I have two distinct sides of my life, where I have my family and I’m like a Park Slope dad who makes sandwiches, and then I get to be an artist and go as far as you can. I’m not a bohemian. I’m not some yuppie or anything, but I believe in both sides of my life.
What does your family think of your work?
They’re very excited. Filmmaking is not an easy profession. There are very high highs and there are very low lows, when you’re editing and you don’t think anyone’s going to see your film, or when you can’t get financing for your film. My wife has to support that, and has to support me with that, and that’s not always easy. But my family is proud of the art I’ve put together and they’re a part of it.
Considering the serious subject matter of “Dark Night," do you have any concerns or reservations about potentially profiting from someone’s pain?
Well, it’s a really serious and good question. And I’m super conflicted with a lot of the process of this movie and what this movie stands for. I’m not conflicted about what this movie comes from, or where this movie comes from, how I made it as an artist and as a human being. I think it’s a movie of respect, I think it respects the people, and I think it respects the issue. I think it respects the issue by not just telling the same story in the same way. So as far as profiting goes, I have made something that is not going to make a ton of money. I’ve made something not for the money.
It could, though, because of the topicality.
Here’s the thing, and I’ll put it back to you—“Under the Gun," “Newtown.” I haven’t seen either of those movies, but those movies are going to sell for a lot more than “Dark Night." But “Dark Night” serves its own purpose in that conversation. It’s not serving the purpose in terms of outwardly directly calling for gun control or giving statistics or giving data. It’s filling the audience, or anyone who sees it, with emotion. Whatever the range of emotions, which is an important part of the conversation. SO if it were to make money, if “Newtown” were to make money, great. If “Dark Night” were to make decent money, we’d try and figure out ways to spread that money around in the proper way. I’ve been working for a year and a half for free. And again, this movie doesn’t sensationalize violence, it doesn’t show any violence. I’m proving the point in commerce, if things need to be bought and sold, then this deserves to be bought and sold too because of the message is layered and complex and nuanced and not spoon-fed, and the world needs that.
Does the world want that?
From the audience reaction from the premiere, they’re ready to try it. I mean, I have no idea what distributor is going to end up with this film. It has to be a very specific kind of distributor, but I think if you put this in a theater in front of anyone out there, it can connect on a variety of levels, and even if it’s a minor connection, like you said, it doesn’t leave your bed burning, and that’s something.